Thursday, December 22, 2005

Why serve pro bono in death penalty cases?

Why are so many lawyers willing to provide pro bono legal representation to death row inmates and defendants charged with capital crimes? Don't some people deserve to die? Deserve it or not, we're all gonna die. It's just a question of how and when. For most people, the inevitability of death is psychologically acceptable due to the fortuity of the "how and when." Executions provide the antithesis of this psychologically appeasing fortuity. For many pro bono lawyers, there is a palpable irony to the death eligibility of a crime being based upon the level of premeditation involved. Indeed, our own legal process in death penalty cases rightly embodies a systematic, methodical premeditation in its phases and stages that far exceeds any possible level of premeditation involved in the underlying crime. Premeditated killing gives many good people "the willies," no matter what the justification. This is particularly true when the level of premeditation bursts through the top of the thermometer. Yes, there is also a great concern among pro bono death penalty lawyers about executing either innocent or, even if not innocent, "less than deserving" defendants. No bureaucracy gets it right every time, especially not ours when it comes to law enforcement and prosecution. We know this with virtual certainty, don't we? So, what percentage of the time does our law enforcement bureaucracy, well intentioned as it is, make a mistake? Less than 1%? More? What is an acceptable percentage level of mistakes in the death penalty area of law enforcement? These are some of the reasons why so many lawyers serve pro bono on death penalty cases. There are others, but I find these compelling enough.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Darfur: Vox clamantis in deserto?

I find the level of public awareness and concern about the genocide in Darfur shockingly low. Please take the time to familiarize yourself with the history and the present circumstances of this horrific situation. The blog of Prof. Eric Reeves is a great place to start:

The international community has failed to prevent, and gives no promise of punishing, the ultimate crime. Eric ReevesDecember 17, 2005

The National Islamic Front is poised to renew its special place in history as a regime that has successfully deployed genocide as a tool of domestic political and security policy. It joins the Turkish government, which was responsible for the genocidal destruction of perhaps a million Armenians during World War I, and the Nigerian government, which during the late 1960s was responsible for the genocidal destruction of more than a million Ibo people in the Biafra region of southern Nigeria. But unlike the earlier Turkish and Nigerian regimes, the National Islamic Front has been successful in its genocidal efforts on multiple occasions, including its previous genocides in the Nuba Mountains (beginning in 1992) and in the southern oil regions (beginning in 1997). These are the ghastly precedents for current genocide in Darfur.

Read the whole thing. Is Prof. Reeves a voice crying out in the wilderness? If so, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Darfur again!

More bad news from Darfur. When are we going to do something about this? Here is an update from

Sudanese Genocide Gets Worse: Professor Eric Reeves of Smith College is indefatigable in his determination to try to stop the genocide in Sudan. The SudanReeves website is an outstanding source of information. His latest posts detail how the situation in Darfur has gotten even worse in recent months, and how the African Union "peacekeeping" force (which is only supposed to protect foreigners, not Darfuris) is an abysmal failure even in its limited mission. The Khartoum dictatorship has been perpetrating genocide since 1992--first in the Nuba Mountains, then in south Sudan, and now in Darfur. Reeves predicts that the next target will the oil-rich eastern Sudan.In the book "Darfur: Genocide Before Our Eyes" (published by the Institute for the Study of Genocide), Reeves makes the case for military intervention by NATO to stop the genocide. Military intervention would be a wonderful idea, and, indeed, there is a good international law argument that every NATO country is legally bound to intervene, since every NATO country is a signatory to the Genocide Convention, which imposes an affirmitive duty to "prevent" genocide.But the prospects of NATO intervention are, unfortunately, nil. Among NATO governments, only the United States has even used the word "genocide" about the genocide in Darfur. At StrategyPage noted long ago, even a NATO-imposed "No-Fly Zone" in Darfur would do tremendous good, since it would prevent the Sudanese Air Force from supporting the ground attacks of the Arab janjaweed. But there is no indication that NATO will do anything more than continue to provide airlifts to the incompetent African Union forces.

Read the whole article. The winds of madness continue to blow.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

China's pro bono lawyers make news

This lawyer sounds pretty courageous to me. These are a couple of excerpts from a much more detailed story.
Lawyer takes on China's 'unwinnable' cases By Joseph Kahn The New York TimesMONDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2005 One November morning, the Beijing Judicial Bureau convened a hearing on its decree that one of China's best-known law firms must shut down for a year because it failed to file a change of address form when it moved offices. The same morning, Gao Zhisheng, the law firm's founder and star litigator, was 2,900 kilometers, or 1,800 miles, away in the remote western region of Xinjiang. He skipped what he called the "absurd and corrupt" hearing so he could rally members of an underground Christian church to sue China's secret police. "I can't guarantee that you will win the lawsuit. In fact you will almost certainly lose," Gao told one church member who had been detained in a raid. "But I warn you that if you are too timid to confront their barbaric behavior, you will be completely defeated." ********************************************************************* After an early career with notable courtroom victories, he has more recently plunged into cases that he knows are unwinnable. He has done pro bono work for members of the Falun Gong sect, displaced homeowners, underground Christians, fellow lawyers and democracy activists. When the courts reject his filings, as they often do, he uses the Internet to rally public opinion. Goa comes from a peasant family that lived in a mud-walled home dug out of a hillside in the Loess Plateau in Shaanxi, northwestern China. His father died at the age of 40. For years he climbed into bed at dusk because his family could not afford oil for its lamp, he recalled. Nor could they pay for elementary school for Gao and his six siblings

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Holiday wish

The rule of law is a very good thing. But how can we expect those who have no access to our legal system to know this? If you have never experienced the benefits that the rule of law provides, then you are probably not going to feel very strongly about its importance in modern society. It is the highest obligation of our legal profession to assure access to the rule of law for all citizens, not just for those with sufficient financial means to hire counsel. Just as no one is above the law, neither is anyone beneath it. Pro bono lawyers know this. That's why they work tirelessly with no expectation of personal gain. During this holiday season, may all pro bono lawyers everywhere experience the happiness of knowing how deeply we appreciate their selflessly kind spirits.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The biggest legal services crisis in history

Hurricane Katrina is not finished with us yet. The housing woes continue big time. Consider this:
Housing woes in the aftermath of the devastating Atlantic hurricane season are causing a fresh wave of trauma on the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coastlines, where more than 300,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In some of the smallest, poorest coastal communities, every home was lost. The problems are exacerbated by a drastic shortage of legal aid for the poor, many of whom can't afford lawyers or don't know how to find them. The resulting legal crisis prompted the president of the American Bar Association to warn that the hurricanes may have triggered ''one of the greatest legal services crises in the history of this country."
What are we going to do aout this? There's more to this story in terms of specifics, but if you even begin to think about it for a minute, you should get the picture. The Gulf coast remains destroyed. Just because the main stream media is no longer on top of "breaking news" from the region, there's no possible reason to believe that things are not just as bad and getting worse for the poor and dispossessed. Stay tuned, and pay attention.

The Gulf coast disaster is not over yet!

My son Ted is spending his holiday break from college working for Hands On USA, an NGO providing disaster relief in Biloxi. He is blogging his daily experiences there, which you can read here. I am very proud of him for doing this. Check it out, and you will see why.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Pro Bono fellowships awarded

This is very, very cool. Skadden Arps is not only one of the best law firms anywhere, it is one of the most generous when it comes to meaningful contributions to pro bono service.
Law Students Snag Fellowships Published On Friday, December 09, 2005 5:14 AM By LULU ZHOU Crimson Staff Writer Last Friday was a dream come true for nine Harvard Law School (HLS) students who learned that they had received the Skadden Fellowship—a grant that supports legal projects aimed at helping disadvantaged people—making them the largest group of fellows HLS has seen. “This fellowship is great because it basically allows you to design your own dream job and somebody gives you the funding to do it,” said Nisha S. Agarwal ’00, a third-year HLS student and newly named fellow. Awarded to 27 recipients this year, the two-year Skadden Fellowship is granted by the law firm Skadden, Arps. Applicants, who must be recent law school graduates or judicial clerks, are asked to design public interests projects, and the fellowship funds the winning selections. Almost two decades old, the Skadden Fellowship Program seeks to provide civil legal services to disadvantaged people, said Susan B. Plum, the program’s founding director.
The rest of the story is here, and it is definitely worth your consideration. If all big law firms took pro bono services as seriously as Skadden Arps, think what a difference that would make.

Wrongful incarceration righted by pro bono lawyers

Hunton & Williams is one terrific law firm, and when it makes the services of its top lawyers available for pro bono service, this is what happens:
MIAMI--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Dec. 8, 2005--Today, the Florida State Senate and House of Representatives awarded Wilton Dedge, a man who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for 22 years, $2 million plus educational benefits. Dedge is the first person exonerated by DNA testing to receive compensation from the State of Florida. "It's been a long battle and I am thankful to the attorneys at Hunton & Williams who worked so hard for me and my family," said Dedge. "Pro bono lawyers also worked very hard to achieve my exoneration -- Nina Morrison with the New York Innocence Project, worked with Florida lawyers Milton Hirsch and Cheney Mason and argued for several years to obtain the testing which I originally requested in 1988. I am ready to start a new life and hope this will help others who have been proved innocent with DNA testing to get the assistance they need to start a new life." Hunton & Williams represented Dedge on a pro bono basis. Sandy D'Alemberte, special counsel to Hunton & Williams and lead attorney in the fight for his compensation, said he is grateful for the support the firm gave during this long process, particularly the support of Marty Steinberg, managing partner of the Miami office of Hunton & Williams.
22 years is a long, lonely time. Congratulations to Hunton & Williams for this great service and fantastic result!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Proskauer honored

It is the mission of this blog to identify and praise pro bono lawyers. So, when a firm like Proskauer Rose does something like this, it gets our attention:
December 5, 2005 - (New York, NY) - LAWFUEL- The Law News Network - Proskauer Rose LLP, an international law firm with over 700 lawyers in the U.S. and Europe, has received five awards from the Legal Aid Society of New York for the firm's commitment to pro bono work on behalf of Legal Aid in 2005. Steven Krane, the partner in charge of Proskauer's pro bono practice, led the group accepting the awards at a special ceremony December 1 in New York City. Proskauer received firm-wide awards for its work on the Rockefeller Re-Sentencing Project, the goal of which is to reduce the prison terms of A-1 felony offenders who were sentenced under the New York State Rockefeller Drug Laws, and the Children's Rights Appeals Project, which provides legal representation for children in the New York foster care system. Individual Proskauer attorneys who received awards are: Joshua Ruthizer for his work representing an individual in a Social Security disability claim case that resulted in a substantial monetary award; Morgan Hankin for his work with the Children's Rights Appeals Project; and Devin Burstein, a former Proskauer attorney, who represented a number of juveniles in their appeals in criminal cases. "The assistance provided by Proskauer's attorneys has made a tremendous difference in the lives of countless individuals," said Allen I. Fagin, Chairman of Proskauer Rose. "It is this firm's honor to lend our knowledge and resources to benefit those who otherwise could not afford legal representation."
Nice going.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Points of light shine from Idaho

The Idaho State Bar has identified several pro bono lawyers for special recognition.
Stephen L. Beer, Dennis L. Cain, Joseph M. Meier, Rory R. Jones, and Michelle R. Points have received 2005 Pro Bono Awards for the 4th Judicial District from the Idaho State Bar. Every year the Bar honors members of the legal profession for their contribution to their communities and to their legal profession. One of the awards is named for the late Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program Director Denise O' Donnell Day who worked tirelessly throughout her career to provide legal services to the poor and disadvantaged. Pro Bono Award recipients follow her example of providing freely the best of their professional abilities and service. Beer and Cain, of Beer & Cain Law Firm, Boise, received individual Pro Bono awards for their work with the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program. Meier, of Cosho Humphrey, Boise, has been representing IVLP pro bono clients in bankruptcy cases since 1989. Jones, of Jones Gledhill Hess Furhman & Eiden P.A., Boise, was nominated by the 4th District CASA Program for his ongoing help with their cases. Points, Hawley, Troxell, Ennis & Hawley LLP, was nominated by the 4th District CASA Program for this award.
These lawyers work tirelessly without any expectation of recognition or reward. We should all be enormously grateful to them for their dedication to the public good. By their actions, the image of our profession shines brightly.

New Yorkers honored for pro bono work

Although virtue may be its own reward, it is nevertheless very gratifying to see public thanks being given to deserving servants of the public good.

New Yorkers Honored for Pro Bono Work New York Lawyer December 2, 2005 By Thomas Adcock New York Law Journal

For outstanding pro bono business counsel given to nonprofit organizations, the Lawyers Alliance for New York presented its annual Cornerstone Awards to Proskauer Rose and Shearman & Sterling, nine individual attorneys and a Columbia Law School professor during a reception last month at the Colgate-Palmolive headquarters on Park Avenue. Individual awards went to Phillip Azzollini of Schulte, Roth & Zabel; Carolina A. Fornos of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman; Marc Hurel of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary; Stephen D. Millas of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Sheree Reinbach and Miriam McKibben of Arent Fox; Melissa G. Rosenberg of Goodwin Procter; Rita Tendolkar of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Michelle Vago of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

There is a lot more, and you can read it all here.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Ordinary Heroes

Lawyer/author Scott Turow has a new book out. You can read a glowing review here, but I want to talk about what a hero Scott Turow is. Here is a description of his current practice:
Turow continues to work as an attorney. He is a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, a national law firm with 600 lawyers. Turow's practice centers on white collar criminal litigation. He devotes a substantial part of his practice now to pro bono work, including representations in cases involving the death penalty. In one of these matters, Alejandro Hernandez, co-defendant of Rolando Cruz, was exonerated after 11 years in prison.
This is how real lawyers do it. Scott Turow doesn't have to do anything but sit back and write. Instead, he leads by example. Want to be a great author? Be more like Scott.

Two birds with one stone

A trial defense to indigent criminal defendants provides not only a great public service but also the "on the ground" trial experience that big firms are no longer able to offer their associates for paying clients. Although the story below leads with a standing offer regarding trial services for federal indigent prisoners, a bigger story would be a similar offer for the countless numbers of indigent state criminal court defendants, especially death eligible defendants, who would benefit from this kind of pro bono effort.

Trial-less Lawyers

As More Cases Settle, Firms SeekPro Bono Work to HoneAssociates' Courtroom Skills

By NATHAN KOPPEL Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL December 1, 2005

Marc Kadish, a partner at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP, recently made an offer to federal judges in Chicago, where the law firm is based: The 1,300-member firm would represent, pro bono, any prisoner with a case set for trial who didn't already have counsel. Since prisoners are prolific case filers and most private lawyers disdain such cases, Mayer Brown thinks the offer will give its young associates the opportunity to hone their courtroom skills -- and it might be one of the few chances they get in the near future.

The notion that trials are "vanishing" should catch the attention of all trial lawyers around the country. If true, this is especially problematic in the criminal arena, where plea bargaining is largely supplanting trial by jury in the vast majority of cases. Does this mean that the government is getting it right in almost every instance? Or are there still times when the wrong person stands accused by a bureaucracy that makes more than a few mistakes? In what percentage of cases does the government get it right? No one seriously thinks that it's 100%, so the real issue is whether justice is done in that percentage of times (10%? 15%? More?) when the wrong person stands accused. Let's get on the stick and help out here. Without an able defense lawyer, an indigent defendant is going to take a plea in almost every instance for a variety of reasons not necessary to dwell upon here. Here is the entire story on this subject.